We probably couldn’t have arrived in Paris at a more interesting - or uneasy - time in recent history. Just a couple of weeks after the horrific attacks on the city, we set foot on the Champs-Élysées and were taking in the sites, sounds and vibes of this incredible town.
The mood was somewhat sombre and the people we met were visibly shaken from the recent events, but as we would quickly learn, Paris is a city of unity and cohesion, and shows amazing resilience even at the worst of times. People continued to socialise on the streets, with red wine flowing - in true defiant Parisian style.
France is home to the second largest hip hop scene outside the United States, and the Parisian suburbs are key in the development of its hop-hop culture.
Much of the city’s hip hop music influence is drawn from poor living conditions, in central and out-of-town housing estates. Residing in HLM rent-controlled housing, many French rappers draw upon their upbringing in this environment as a source of inspiration for their lyrics. In particular, places like Le Brake, La Chapelle, Clichy-Sous-Bois and the 18th Arrondissement are considered neighbourhoods which have directly influenced some of the most prominent rappers in French hip hop.
But although Paris’ underprivileged urban areas have led rappers to express themselves about social segregation – the act of doing so – also brings them together.
When we spoke with the awesome Cecile (‘Pumpkin’) Unia, she told us about the recent attacks on the Bataclan nightclub. “It was just a few weeks earlier that I was there”, she said, “they could have been my friends and fans.”
As Cecile spoke, it was clear that there was a strong sense of community among the Parisian hip hop scene. She told us about the sense of brotherhood and sisterhood among local musicians, as well as the city’s open spaces, venues and events which bring artists together to network, learn and hang out. It was clear that these two things went hand-in-hand: the physical spaces within the city itself had directly helped to create the deep connections that the artists have with one another.
Sitting at the intersection of multiple metro lines, for example, the area of Les Halles has for a long time been considered an important part of local hip hop culture. People from different neighbourhoods across the city once travelled to its underpasses and disused spaces to break-dance and rap together.
When the government embarked upon a large scale neighbourhood regeneration scheme, local community groups argued that hip hop should be integrated back into the local community as part of its redevelopment. Fortunately the government listened. It wasn't long before hip hop enthusiast Jean-Marc Meogeot, was put in charge to help develop the a new hip hop venue for the Parisian community. It’s a good thing that Jean-Marc dreams big – because these are no small plans.
When built, the Paris Hip Hop Centre will provide huge spaces for hip hop artists to create and perform dance and music. With dozens of recording studios and classrooms, the centre will be important for local artists to turn their hobby into something much bigger.
Importantly, for the same reason that attracted artists to hang out in the Les Halles in the first place, the centre will still be blessed by the nearby metro station, which will allow people to come together from all across the city, including its vast suburbs.
As we learned from the artists we met, the space to perform and record in the city is important. Because after all - hip hop isn’t just about unity – it’s also about success.
Urban sociologist and geographer Severin Guilliard told us, “Parisian urban space is something that artists can use and reproduce… it’s going to be easier for artists in Paris to succeed in rap music, than the artists coming in from other areas of France.”
The city of Paris gives hip hop musicians resources and connections, and this enables them to compete on a global scale – even with the United States.
If you want to find success in the Parisian rap scene, you don’t need to search much further than Gaellino 'Lino' M’Bani.
From the early days of rapping with his brother in Arsenik, he remains today one of the godfathers of French hip hop. Perhaps it was the images from his recent video clip which had stuck firmly in my mind, but I have to admit, as we welcomed him into our hotel, I felt a little intimidated.
It didn’t take long however, before we realised that there was nothing to be intimidated by. Like the artists we’d met before him, Lino was with us to talk about the scene and the city he loved. When we mentioned that we’d met with “Pumpkin” before him, his eyes lit up, “oh yeah I know her - she’s good!” There was no doubt that he shared a unity with the other artists across the city. Lino summed it up best himself, “Paris is the capital where everything comes together”.
The sad events from a couple of weeks before had shocked the world, but there was no doubt that Paris was resilient. Clearly, music has played a strong role in creating such a strong and unified city... Vive la Paris!
Check out the film below.